Current Issue

Feb.13, 2008

Vol. 108, No. 8

Dream Builders

Thing writing your senior thesis was tough? Try creating a clinic or school - abroad - at the same time

By Katherine Federici Greenwood
Published in the February13, 2008, issue


Hunter Woolley ’98 and Ann Ellis Woolley ’01, center, with students at the RAFIKI school in Kibera, Kenya.
Hunter Woolley ’98 and Ann Ellis Woolley ’01, center, with students at the RAFIKI school in Kibera, Kenya.

Students who tackle such intractable problems as poverty and lack of education in developing countries “are not only able to see the problems or the challenges but to envision solutions and to come up with these remarkable new ideas, which at first for many of us sound like they might not be feasible — and yet they can find ways to make things happen,” says Princeton’s vice president for campus life, Janet Dickerson. Some students — encouraged by funding from Princeton-affiliated groups such as Project 55 — are prepared to become CEOs of nonprofits even before they graduate, she says. Dickerson admits to having “discouraged students from taking on such major projects too early in their academic careers,” but says she generally supports the students in what they are attempting to do. In any case, she says, “usually our discouragement is ineffective.”

Noticing student interest in “social entrepreneurship,” the Pace Center, which promotes community involvement, offered a noncredit fall seminar, “Social Entrepreneurs, Innovators, and Problem Solvers,” led by Scott Sherman, founder of the Transformative Action Institute in Los Angeles. Its 13 students considered case studies of leaders in the for-profit and nonprofit worlds and learned about conflict resolution, fundraising, leadership, and networking. They developed grant proposals and presented business plans at the end of the semester. Amanda Mazur ’08, for example, created a project called “Don’t Let It Go to Waist.” She hopes to combat hunger and obesity by organizing a coalition of restaurants in her hometown of Chicago that would offer agreeable customers smaller portions while charging the regular price; the restaurants would then contribute the savings — in either food or dollars — to food banks or other organizations that work to alleviate hunger.

Sherman’s course did not exist in the late 1990s when Woolley, then a sophomore majoring in engineering, set out to determine what opening a school in Kenya would require, and how she might accomplish it. The sisters of the Missionaries of Charity permitted Woolley to use their buildings at no charge. The sisters also agreed to run the school’s day-to-day operation and oversee the teachers. “It would be seen as the sisters’ school,” says Woolley, who was intent on making sure that it would be a partnership, not a handout. Using contacts she made through her Kenyan host family, the Princeton student met with lower-level employees at the Ministry of Education and at nongovernmental organizations, seeking advice on Kenyan education and curricula. Her host mother, a trained teacher, helped Woolley find teachers, gather materials, and train four Kiberan mothers as instructors. An American company donated uniforms for the students. Woolley says she did not feel intimidated in her meetings — she was enthusiastic, expecting to succeed, and “there to learn.”

But how to pay for the school’s operation? Her break came after a conversation with the pastor of St. Paul’s Church in Princeton, though she didn’t go into the meeting with him with “the fundraising mentality that I need to have and use now,” she says. Still, the pastor, Walter Nolan, was impressed by her organization and the detail of her plans, and the parish finance committee, which has a twin parish in Uganda, felt sympathetic. It offered $10,000 in seed money, along with its blessing. “I can’t imagine that you, being a junior in college, can really open a school,” Nolan told her, Woolley recalls. “But good luck. I hope you can. And if you can, this money will go to good use.” It did: Classes began in January 2000 for 520 students ages 5 to 15, some of whom had never been to school before.
Social entrepreneurs learn quickly that shyness has no place in such an endeavor. And so the students asked for help wherever they could find it: from parents, schoolmates, professors, and complete strangers who had cash or expertise. Kush Parmar admits to trolling the TigerNet alumni directory for potential donors, at one point searching for anyone with “president” in the job title. He came across Barry Simon ’64, the former vice president of Continental Airlines, and wrote a letter asking him to donate roundtrip tickets for students to work in Mexico. “I heard back! I was shocked,” Parmar says. For two years, until Sept. 11, Continental gave participating students free flights.

Whenever they could, the students drew on their Princeton connections. The Parmars’ project received $2,000 from the President’s Fund to support student travel expenses (though it later ran into trouble for violating a University policy on student-group fundraising) and is now associated with Princeton in Latin America. Woolley got grants totaling $6,000 from the Office of Religious Life and the President’s Fund to support herself and three other Princeton students who were teaching at her school in Kenya during the summer. She also connected with Joseph Woods ’81, a plastic surgeon in Georgia and volunteer in Kenya, who was instrumental in helping Woolley open a primary-care clinic near the school the summer after she graduated. And the University provided a forum for Neubauer: She has given talks at the International Center and the Pace Center, and has mounted photo exhibits that led to contributions from Princetonians.

After classes, the students morphed into part-time fund-raisers, publicists, event planners, and even lawyers-in-training. Neubauer drew on the presentation skills she had used in her Princeton classes to put on donor-friendly PowerPoint and video presentations in the city hall of her hometown in Austria, among other places. With no attorney or accountant, she and her fellow students got an on-the-job crash course in the fine points of registering and managing a nonprofit — theirs is Ashraya Initiative for Children (www.ashrayainitiative.org). She took time out from work on her economics thesis last spring to revise materials that would go to the IRS. “I was running regressions for the analytical part of my thesis and working on answering the IRS questions” at the same time, she recalls. “I thought, ‘I should probably be working on my thesis right now!’” Her internship at the Princeton University Investment Co. helped her understand the financial spreadsheets she had to prepare. As treasurer of the nonprofit, Neubauer tracks the donations, compiles the financial statements, and sends the donors receipts and personal thank-you notes. There was an unanticipated bright side: All that writing “helped my grade in courses where I had to write papers or reports,” she says.

Some of the questions the students faced had no parallel in the classroom. Neubauer and her co-founders had to decide whether the Pune home should accept children who were drug addicts or prostitutes — as some of the street children were. The students decided that they could not. “We’re not therapists, we’re just college students,” Neubauer says.

Occasionally the social entrepreneurs struggled with how to make adults take them seriously. In the Cruz Blanca Initiative, Princeton students volunteer to work in the Mexican villages during spring break; the villagers volunteer to finish the construction; and local government officials are expected to kick in a share of the costs and find contractors, teachers, and other professionals. No one coached the Parmars on setting up meetings with community leaders or convincing small-town mayors to match funding; instead, they had groomed their people skills as they grew up by watching their parents interact in an area where “bargaining is huge in the market and everything is about a relationship,” Sheila Parmar says. They arranged their first meeting with the mayor of rural Cruz Blanca through family connections.

At their first fundraising meeting with affluent Princeton residents, the Parmars aimed to look professional and ended up feeling overdressed. But in Mexico, they tried to gain credibility by meeting with community leaders wearing Princeton T-shirts and jeans. “Pretty much we’re always wearing Prince-ton garb” at meetings with people in Mexico, says Kush Parmer. “As a young person, it’s difficult to get these big guys to take you seriously, but the Princeton name was a helpful thing.” Partly to convince the mayor that they were up to the job of building a school, the students brought design plans that had been prepared by a family friend who was a mechanical engineer. But a promise and a Princeton T-shirt don’t always cut it, especially in a “more urban, more savvy environment,” Parmar acknowledges. Indeed, they have struck out with other government officials, most recently last year in Boca del Rio, where “the mayor wouldn’t even see us,” he says.

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CURRENT ISSUE: Feb.13, 2008